The Discipline of Joy.

((From Kirsten))

*As Eve spends a few weeks away from the computer to snuggle her babe, we have been thrilled to welcome writers who are popping in on Saturdays to share their unique voice + perspective with you. Today’s post is from Kirsten, a mother of three beautiful boys – two who live with her and her husband Ross in their Cincinnati home and one who lives in heaven. She is a lifelong dancer and lover of nature, children and God, and seeks connection and meaning in her work and in her relationships. Professionally she works as a NICU nurse practitioner and cares for the smallest and sickest of babies.

When I was young, one of my least favorite words was “chores.” Just writing it now, my stomach churns a little and my brows knit together in disgust and anger. As a child, I so desperately needed to know that I was unconditionally and deeply loved, and anything that made me feel like love from my parents was conditional made my insides sink. Love with perceived conditions squeezed hurt into my heart, yanked all sense of stability out from beneath me, and left me feeling shaky and insecure.

I honestly don’t know where this issue of insecure attachment originated from, but I know that the list of “chores” that I needed to complete in order to be acceptable in life often seemed overwhelming and beyond my ability to complete. My head hung low with the feeling that I’d never be good enough. And so I hated the idea of “chores,” of things I had to do, of tasks that I must force myself to accomplish in order to fulfill expectations set before me. I hated the idea of discipline. I just wanted to be loved.

Imagine my conundrum when I first read that “God disciplines those He loves.”
What?! Discipline does not equal love. Discipline equals God’s disappointment in me, His dissatisfaction with me, His rejection of me. If love was what God wants to offer me, wouldn’t He just hold me close, snuggle me, whisper in my ear? Why does there have to be a painful training process?

Of course, I learned that God disciplines in order to guide us towards what is best for us, so that we can move in directions that promote well-being. Since He made us, He knows what we need. He teaches and guides us as a reflection of His character, a lover that cannot leave the beloved to her own devices, but instead must constantly draw her closer to himself and mold her into his own image. God calls us to Himself and teaches us to live in ways that maximize peace, and joy.

So… what does any of that mean when your child dies? What role does discipline play when your world is shattered?

When you are grieving, the last thing that comes to mind as being a good use of the tiny shreds of energy that you have left in your collapsed core is discipline of any sort. Well, maybe not the very last thing that comes to mind, because the very last thing that comes to mind when you are grieving the loss of your child is joy.

Joy seems an utter impossibility when the baby you grew inside your body is now housed within the damp sod of a cemetery. Joy seems to dwell on the other side of a great divide defined by the before and after of your child’s death. Now that we are living in the after, true joy can never be experienced. It simply does not exist in this new reality. How can it?

Who would have thought that one day, the “chore” (the seemingly impossible task laid before me, the call and challenge that made me want to punch the air and beg for mercy and ask to just be loved and held instead of forced to drag myself through challenging activities designed to move me closer to God’s ideal for me) would be to find joy again?

In the aftermath of my son’s birth and death, continuing to live seemed like a ridiculous thing to do. Many, many things that once seemed important and worth my energies no longer mattered. It was an abrupt and excruciatingly painful lesson in sorting the wheat from the chaff of life, of learning what was essential and what to cling to, as so many things were carried away from me in the rush of grief that flooded my days and threatened to carry me away with it.

As my feet searched desperately for solid ground to stand on, as I tried over and over to kick for the surface, what carried me through this first year of life after loss was being disciplined about seeking opportunities to find joy, in big and little ways, both planned and spontaneous. Moment by moment, my heart sought beauty in the most simple connections with God and nature, and those connections gave me the strength to draw another breath, to endure another moment, to take the next step along the painful journey of learning to live after such a soul-crushing loss.

It’s been said that the task at hand in the early stages of grief is simply to optimize self-care. Daily I chose behaviors that would maximize my chances of experiencing even a small glimmer of joy in the endless heavy gray fog that blanketed me. I danced as often as possible, and this activity allowed my heart to soar as love and grief and joy and pain found expression of their complex, intertwined nature. My heart would often crash again just as soon as it had found its tender wings, but it was alive and feeling.

The blow of crashing back into my painful new reality was often cushioned by the love of the community of support that surrounded me. I was disciplined in my efforts to connect with other moms who had suffered similar losses, and those connections created space for the most bittersweet celebrations of the love we share for our children, and from these relationships the sweetest aroma of heaven arose as we sensed and shared the presence of our children and reminders of the reunion that awaits us.

Thus was born a deep sense of connection with God, with a greater community of loss and grief and love. In turn, this gave birth to meaning and joy, even as the sharp pain of loss continued to twist every nerve in my body.

Joy is found in experiencing connection with God, and the discipline of mindfulness often allowed me to sense this connection. The complex beauty of nature captivated my eyes and heart in the months following Gavin’s death, and the simple presence of a flower or buzzing dragonfly would draw me into a state of appreciation of the natural world that God has created, and of the privilege I enjoy of getting to live in it.

Yes, continuing to live after my son died is painful, but immersing myself in the natural beauty of creation heightened my sense of connection with God, and with Gavin. It was this connection that I so desperately needed when absolutely nothing made any sense anymore. This was the solid ground that I needed to come rushing up under my feet to steady and carry me. This was the hope that I clung to in the midst of the rushing river that threatened to drown me. These simple reminders of God’s love carried me, moment by moment, through crushing grief, and gave me the courage that I needed to keep living.

The discipline of setting aside small bits of time, frequently and throughout every day, to listen and to hear my own voice and God’s response, kept me grounded and helped me to move step by step along the confusing and painful path of living while deeply grieving. The practice of seeking and finding God’s very real presence, even in the darkest hours, in small and simple ways, pulled me through and kept me alive on a steady diet of small, simple joys.

Perhaps the most important discipline that I committed to and practiced in the months following my son’s death was a willingness to be honest with myself, with God, and with those around me about my pain and grief. I brought up the truth of darkness and it’s depths. I shared the most painfully cracked and broken parts of me with safe and loving people – allowing God’s love and strength to flow into my deepest wounds and begin to rebuild my fragile frame with strength that was not my own.

God met me in the depths, made His love and presence known, filled in the cracks, and lifted small parts of my soul up to Himself and to moments of joy. Had I tried to hide my pain or “tough it out”, I would have sunk. The loss of my son is not something that I will ever fully recover from or “get over.” I am forever changed and will always carry the weight of this grief with me, but I do need to continue to function, and because I have a Father that loves me, it is possible for grief and joy to coexist.

In my grief, I stand in need of love from the One who knows me best. This is the discipline that leads to joy. “The Lord disciplines those He loves…” He guides, teaches, and points those He loves in the direction of the path that leads to life. He takes us by the hand and guides us step by step – over each rock and root that lies in wait to trip us up. He reminds us to breathe and eat and rest. This is how much He loves us… This is how patient and enduring His love is… This is how determined He is to walk with us through our pain…. This is the tenderest of disciplines.

God does not discipline us to improve our performance, but to deepen our connection with Himself. When there is pressure to perform without love to support, people snap. When there is consistent and undergirding Love, and discipline is given with the intent to direct and guide, people soar.

Life can be painful.
Life isn’t fair.
It isn’t fair that my son died. Knowing and experiencing joy in this life can’t be based on the presence of fairness, because fair doesn’t exist. But what does exist is the ability to choose behaviors and disciplines and relationships that will create opportunities to taste joy. There is so much that we can not control, but when we do get a chance to choose, may we choose well, and may it not be a chore. May we choose joy.

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