Grief, Grace, and Growth…

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By Beth Davis

I love this season. Nothing could be better than crunching through autumn leaves on a long, walk in the woods. And, yet I am aware that for families in grief, this is a difficult time of the year. Perhaps that is because the dark days of winter loom just around the corner.  It is as if God reminds us that even the beauty of nature will die before we can witness the wonder of winter, and eventually the new life of spring.

You may find yourself unusually depressed or lonely during this season. Or, some folks harbor feelings of guilt for entertaining “selfish” emotions. If so, I invite you to consider your beliefs regarding suffering. In his book, Shattered Dreams, Larry Crabb suggests that sorrow allows the Christian to move from the shallowness of seeking happiness to the determination to walk through pain. It is after embracing pain that people discover an intense desire for God. When they begin to seek God, rather than “happiness” they find indescribable joy. Larry Crabb states:  “Suffering has a function . . . as nothing else can to move us away from demanding what’s good, toward desiring what’s better, until heaven provides what’s best.”   

While working as a hospital chaplain, I stopped to visit a favorite patient. Lucile was in the last, painful stages of brain cancer. She appeared to be sleeping, so I turned to leave the room. Just as I did, she called, “No, please, come and sit with me.” Lucile explained that she was quietly reflecting on the suffering of Christ, and the knowledge that her suffering paled in comparison to His. I knew that Lucile lived with continuous pain. Yet, her theology allowed her to endure suffering for the moment, knowing that God’s presence was with her in the middle of her pain. She trusted Him with the outcome of her illness.

Down the hallway, another woman, Sue, was battling aggressive breast cancer. As I entered her room, the stench of rotting flesh permeated the room. This woman refused any medical interventions. Instead, she insisted that God was going to physically heal her, and chose to surround herself with people who would spiritually support her. She refused to use the word cancer, disease, or death. Instead, she demanded that her friends and family use only positive terms in her presence.

A few days later, both women died. Lucile spent her last days in gratefulness, seeking reconciliation with estranged family members. She died in a room filled with sadness, yet somehow the sadness was transformed as her friends and family witnessed her peaceful entrance to eternal life. At the same time, Sue’s last moments were far from peaceful. Her husband and friends shouted at God with angry, disappointed, and even disillusioned voices. The use of carefully chosen Bible verses failed to produce their anticipated miracle. They also failed to ponder what God’s purpose might be in Sue’s suffering and eventual death.

A theology of suffering sustains the mature Christian during times of discouragement. You see, we are often eager to sing about heaven and our desire to be with Jesus, but when our friends or family members brush up close to death, we, in our honest humanity, want to keep everyone right here, near to us. Both biblical and psychological principles encourage Christians to embrace grief and suffering as part of their growth plan, which will deepen their walk with God. The Apostle Paul normalizes the experience of suffering by stating in Corinthians 4:17-18:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

If you are experiencing pain or grief, take some time for reflection.  Allow yourself to shed some tears. And, before it’s too late, get outside and enjoy these last gorgeous days of Fall!

Find Your Flow

flowBy Beth Davis, D.Min. This year, during the season of Lent, I chose to give up something different from the usual decadent desserts and caffeine beverages that I have sacrificed in previous years. I decided to work on some of my hidden addictions–in other words, my thoughts and attitudes, When a critical thought entered my mind, I took notice of it, and replaced it with a positive attitude. I soon discovered that this challenge proved to be far more difficult than giving up chocolate or cappuccino. Scripture invites us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Outward behavior is often easier to change than what is inward and hidden. Negative thoughts generate negative attitudes, Our thought life controls the way in which we live and relate to others, Rumination–the act of negatively thinking about an event or conversation over and over again–will eventually deplete energy. Research confirms this biblical truth and suggests that individuals who ruminate are at a higher risk for depression. So, how do we eliminate negative thoughts that seem to dominate our waking, and sometimes sleeping, hours” Certainly I tried to “give up” thinking in a negative manner. And, I believe it was a good exercise. I realized how many time during the day my thoughts would simply take off in a direction of their own. If you struggle with rumination or any form of worry, anxiety, or negativity, may I suggest a practical approach that has helped me reduce rumination? Mental health researchers suggest that becoming absorbed in a hobby or sport–a flow activity–will greatly reduce rumination. So, when you find yourself in a negative state of mind, find your flow. A flow activity involves creativity and it provides enjoyment. When you engage in this type of outlet, it is impossible to ruminate. The following list suggests tips for discovering or establishing a flow in your lifestyle.

1. Identify activities that give you pleasure, making it impossible to focus on stressful events or circumstances. Flow activities differ for everyone and may include: playing an instrument, jogging, painting, hiking, gardening, singing, antiquing, golfing, fishing, swimming, crap-booking, quilting, cooking, and writing.

2. Schedule specific times in your week for flow activities. It is important to create space in your schedule for interests which are non-work related.

3. Counteract stress with flow. After a long business meeting or an argument with a friend or family member, take some time to flow.

4. Nature often provides a natural setting for flow. The words of John Muir are so true: “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread…places to play in…where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”

5. Recognize the spiritual responsibility of taking time for rest and renewal. Minister who have identified flow activities tend to be well-rounded, healthy individuals. If you haven’t already done so, discover what makes you flow. It will help you to “take captive every thought.”

Get Serious about Socializing

IMG_1666By Beth Davis, D. Min

Last week, in a Latin American country, Nathan and I taught a seminar on how to retain resilience. When we came to the section on the importance of socialization, I wondered if it was even worthwhile to discuss this topic in a country that is so highly relational. I began to ask questions to the participants, all of whom were involved in full-time ministry. Unanimously, they agreed that this was an area in which they struggled. All cultures are changing as daily life becomes more driven by technology. After full days of working with people, it is normal to crave some down-time, alone. Yet, building and maintaining a network of friends represents the single most important factor in promoting vitality and personal well-being.

For women, socialization is even more important than sleep or exercise. This is because when gals get together socially, and communicate at a deep level, their brains actually produce chemicals that promote emotional health. Historically, women shared activities such as gardening, gathering, canning, and quilting. Over the years modern conveniences along with the opportunity to work outside of the home has re-placed this sense of community for many women.

Transition has become a way of life for most of us. After multiple relocations, it is tempting to pull back from making new friends in order to avoid the hurt of eventually having to say “good-bye.” Too often, this behavior leads to isolation and depression. Maintaining friendships requires intentionality. The following list suggests some tips for keeping socially connected:

  • Learn to listen. Show an interest in other people. Dale Carnegie made the statement, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
  • Start a small group. Bible and prayer groups are always meaningful. For people in ministry, however, it might be helpful to organize a group that helps you escape your everyday church-focused life. For instance, I have always enjoyed English literature, but have never had an opportunity to formally study. A few years ago I asked my friend, an English professor, to help me launch a monthly reading group. Between my hectic schedule of overseas travel, these women, a group ranging from college students to retired grandmothers, have become dear and trusted friends.
  • Guard confidentiality. Nothing will kill a relationship faster than failed confidences. Certainly if you are worried about a friend’s mental, emotional or spiritual stability, it is appropriate to address the issue. However, ask permission before sharing these confidences with a third individual.
  • Invest in positive friendships. Seek friendship with individuals who give you energy. Avoid seeking the friendship of people with whom you only share negative emotions and common issues of conflict. These kinds of friendships fail to provide encouragement and strength during times of distress. Remember that “a friend is someone who is delighted to see you and does not have any immediate plans for your improvement.” (author unknown).
  • Make a date. Everyone appears to have limited amounts of free time. The only way to have time for friends is to schedule ahead. Pick up the phone, make the connection, and write down a time in your weekly planner. Be creative and flexible. Make time for a cup of coffee; a brown-bag lunch at the park; or a walk through the neighborhood. Recently I shared a lunch with my friend and her toddler son. After picking up “drive-through” sandwiches, I accompanied her for an hour of errands, chatting along the way. The important thing was that we were together and able to share in person. This friend energizes me and I always leave her presence feeling better than I when I arrived. Another friend and I take “destination walks.” We walk a mile or two to a cafe, talking as we go. The walk provides exercise, sunshine, and a wonderful dose of socialization.
  • Initiate the invitation. When you move to a new place, don’t wait for others to include you in their established circle of friends. Make the effort to seek new friendships. Consider inviting people to your home for a simple meal. Restaurants and coffee shops are a great place for catching up with friends or grabbing a quick bite to eat after church. But for deeper conversations, there is no better place than in the privacy of your kitchen or dining room. And the food does not need to be elaborate or labor-intensive. When Nathan and I moved to a new city, a couple often invited us to join them for lunch or dinner. Away from the hustle and bustle of a noisy restaurant, we enjoyed many Chinese take-out dinners around their table. These folks became some of our best friends and we continue to practice what they modeled: Invite people into your home for meals, and make it simple.
  • Hang on (to the phone or computer) during tough times. When you find yourself isolated and without friends, write e-mails, texts, and telephone (or skype) as much as possible. These tools are not as effective as “in person” friends, but they will enable you to stay connected even in times of necessary isolation.