The dance of life & death

We had an obviously really sweet ending to 2016, but when Noland and I sat down on New Year’s Eve to process our year and dream into a new one, it was kind of crazy to remember how hard this year actually was. For the last month I have just been weeping joy tears over our beautiful baby girl, but in the 11 months prior to that, there was heartache and loss and all sorts of confusion — and all at the same time, hope, life, and the provision of God in the most impossible places.

We entered the extremely intimidating process of adoption, and I wrestled with fear and anxiety the entire time. Yet every step of the way, God reminded me how much He was with us and for us. We asked Him for a house; He gave us one. We moved forward with adoption even when we didn’t know where tens of thousands of dollars were going to come from; He literally opened Heaven and poured it out on us.

We were surprised by a sort of miraculous pregnancy in July, and we grieved the loss of that pregnancy at around 8 weeks. Less than two weeks later, another August 8 came and went, and it all felt like too much — questioning the loss of and longing for our boy Judah all over again, and still healing from miscarriage all at the same time. The entire month of August just felt like death to me.

We grieved with others this year, too. We spent two weeks in Europe over the summer, learning the stories of Syrian refugees and allowing our hearts to break with theirs in their longing and loss — emotions that are all too familiar to us. We saw a brokenness in our world that we can’t un-see, and our hearts will never be the same from it.

We walked with other friends of ours through the loss of babies, broken marriages and other wounded relationships. We watched as a really hateful election cycle unfolded, polarizing our nation and leaving a lot of people we love deeply heartbroken. All of these experiences made 2016 a really confusing year for me, personally.

I spent a lot of the month of November just grieving. I felt grieved over and tired from our three and a half year journey to family. I felt grieved over the brokenness in our nation. I felt grieved over the brokenness in the Middle East, over the friends I made in refugee camps in Europe this summer and their longing to be back home.

And then on December 1, this precious baby girl was placed in my arms. And it was so sweet and I will never be the same, but even her arrival wasn’t without grief and heartache. It wasn’t necessarily mine and Noland’s grief, but we were deeply touched by the grief of her birth parents that we saw so up close.

Something happens when you share such an intimate experience with strangers — they quickly become the opposite of strangers. In one night, these two precious people became so dear to our hearts. We laughed with them. We cried with them. Gosh, we had a baby with them. That sounds weird but there’s not really any other way to say it.

About a week after Ellie Joy was born, we took her by her birth parents’ place to say goodbye. It was one of the most holy moments I have ever experienced. We all stood outside, and some of the neighbors crowded around to see the baby they’d all been watching grow in their friend’s belly. We all ooh-and-ahh’d over her, most of us with tears in our eyes.

One of the neighbors asked if he could pray over her before we left, so we all gathered around, a bunch of misfit strangers quickly made brothers & sisters, as we laid hands on our girl and asked God to bless her and keep her. In my mind I sort of zoomed out on that scene — a scene I never in a million years would have placed myself in — and I thought about how sweet it is the way God weaves life into all of our dead and hopeless places.

We finished praying and we walked away to have a more private goodbye with Ellie’s birth parents. Her birth dad hugged Noland and with tears still welling up in his eyes he said, “Go be a daddy.”

Her birth mom walked us to our car, both of us awkwardly prolonging a goodbye we weren’t sure how to say. She kissed Ellie and handed her back to me. I hugged her and through my blubbering tears all I could say over and over was, “Thank you.” She thanked me back, for giving her girl a hope that she couldn’t, and told us both she loved us dearly.

As we drove away, I thought about how we would be celebrating in the weeks and months to come, and they would be grieving and healing. And oh, the ache of grieving your babies — I know it so well. In those couple of weeks in Arizona, I had no idea how much my heart was capable of grieving and celebrating all at the same time.

And that’s kind of how this year has been. Deep, deep grief coupled with extravagant celebration. Even this baby girl in our arms who we are so crazy about doesn’t take away the grief of losing Judah last year or the loss of our pregnancy in July. I still think about both of those babies when I rock her to sleep at night.

The truth is, there’s no real cure for longing on this side of Heaven. We’ll never be complete on this side of eternity. We will always experience grief even in the presence of life — and I’m learning to be grateful for that.

I know Jesus better because of it. Because He was a man familiar with suffering and acquainted with grief — and all in the same breath, He is Life. He is Victory. He is Hope. He is Peace. In His Presence is FULLNESS of Joy. And that is because for the joy set before Him, He endured suffering and death on the cross.

Sometimes when death sings melody, life sings harmony. And somehow the two together end up being a really special kind of beautiful.

In 2017, I hope we are all better at this dance of letting those two things exist alongside each other. When our hearts are breaking, I hope we let them — there is gold in being broken and allowing God to move and comfort and heal, even in our questions. And when we experience victories, I hope we are brave enough to claim and celebrate them, not allowing our previous losses to steal from our current breakthrough.

When we see injustices unfold before our eyes, I hope we really see them and choose to allow our hearts to be moved in such a way that our actions follow. I hope we let our own heartbreaks grow empathy for others.

I hope we’re all a little more uncomfortable this year — willing to be inconvenienced and interrupted for the sake of someone else.

And you know what I think fuels all of those things? Being willing to be heartbroken. There is something about experiencing grief that makes us all a little more hungry and willing to make sacrifices in order to bring forth life. And I think our world could use a little more of that this year.

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The Wait is Over

I heard someone say once that to be a great writer you have to be a great steward of pain. In the last few years I’ve learned that’s true — that to be a good steward of pain, you have to be willing to sit in it long enough to make some sense of it. And even then, after all of that, you have to be brave enough to show up and relive it in order to write it all down.

I haven’t always been the best about that last part these last couple of years. It felt exhausting sometimes to revisit trauma, and exposing to put my bleeding heart on paper while it was still gushing. I wrote when I felt like I had the grace, but a lot of times I sat in front of my computer with an aching heart and a blank stare, and I walked away with nothing.

The last time I posted here, we were waiting to be matched with a baby. Tonight that baby is sleeping soundly on my chest as I type with my falling-asleep-arms, not wanting to wake her.

It all happened so fast and unexpectedly, the way a snow storm comes quietly in the night and you wake up and everything looks different, blanketed in white. We were matched with our little girl on November 6, and on November 30 we got on a plane to Phoenix to be there for her December 1 birth.

Everything had been so crazy that day — the phone call that her birth mom had gone into labor and the frantic packing and trying to get on the next flight — that I didn’t even think about the date. That night around midnight, when we knew she would be born the next day, a friend reminded me, “Sara, this baby girl is going to come on December 1. The first day of Advent, which literally means arrival.”

What a sweet prophetic mirroring of that night in Bethlehem, when 400 years of silence ended with the cries of a baby boy — a King. A Savior. And there we were in a hospital room in the desert, far from home, anticipating the glorious ending of our own years of silence and longing — and the sound of her first cry, it was magic. Like a trumpet heralding the end of a long and painful road to family.

In the chaos of our girl coming early, I wasn’t able to get quite all of my work done before we left. So the day after our daughter was born, as I sat snuggling her in our hospital room and bonding as much as possible, I also had to finish designing a sermon graphic for our church’s Christmas series, which was starting that week.

I laughed at the awkward juggling of motherhood and ministry that I was being immediately thrown into the fire of, but as I opened my computer to finish this project for church, I wept when I remembered the title of the series:

“The Wait is Over”

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I sat there with this tiny miraculous promise fulfilled in my lap, reliving that moment in the delivery room the night before where I got to be the first one to lay eyes on her, all the emotions of years of silence coming to an end rushing back to my heart and out of my eyes in a river of tears.

The wait is over. And my baby girl in my arms on December 1 is only the tiniest glimpse of the Greatest Gift we celebrate during this season.

Can you imagine the glory of that night? The shepherds interrupted in the shadows by the great light of an entire Heavenly host of angels. The chaos of labor and delivery in a barn. The sound of angels singing, and the image of Mary “treasuring it all up and pondering it in her heart.”

I felt a little like Mary that night in the hospital. Noland and me navigating the sort of awkward but somehow beautifully comfortable relationship with the birth parents of our girl. Nurses in and out of the room looking so confused by our dynamic. Our hilarious case worker entertaining us all to keep things feeling light hearted. The sounds of labor and pain, the buzz of doctors and nurses, and the sobering reality that what we were about to celebrate, our girl’s birth parents were going to grieve.

It all seemed to be spinning around us, echoes of every story in that room being orchestrated into this beautiful harmonious moment. And then her first cry — it was like it silenced every other sound, and time stopped, and the room froze, and there was her face. And even in the middle of all that chaos — I was overcome by peace & wonder.

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The wait was over.

I looked at her, and I thought about all the things that had led to this moment. The promises and prophetic words spoken. The hope deferred and longing and loss. The ways God always proves His Romans 8:28 promise to be true — a working of all things together for good.

I felt in that moment like I tasted a little bit of Mary’s pondering that night in Bethlehem. Like maybe time stopped for her for just a moment, and she thought about that first conversation with the angel who told her what would happen and she said, “but how?” And now she knew. She never doubted that it could be. She just wondered how.

Two weeks later we were standing at an intersection in Scottsdale, waiting to cross the street, and a lady commented on how pretty our girl was. We got to talking and told her that she was adopted, and that we were getting to go home the next day. As we parted ways after crossing the street she turned to me and said, “Enjoy your new life!”

Enjoy your new life. I love that. I’ve been thinking about it constantly ever since she said it. New Life — it’s who He is. It’s why He came. It’s what we remember these weeks of Advent, as we light candles and sing carols and take time to be still and adore Him.

Our wait is over, and this is the part where we enjoy our New Life.

And me? I’m not really sure what that means yet. But I know I feel awake again, and ready to be a better steward of all that pain I’ve been sifting through the last couple of years.

This Christmas week, though? I plan to treasure up all these things and ponder them in my heart.

Cheers. It’s time to learn to celebrate.

It’s 10:48 pm on October 27, and I’ve got a birthday in a little over an hour. Something about that always makes me feel a little reflective; a little nostalgic, even. Another 365 days of life gone by. Another trip full-circle around the sun. I always wonder at the end of a year if I got everything out of it that I could have. Some of that is just a chronic case of middle-child FOMO (fear of missing out).

I think some of it is valid, though. A desire to live well, to take opportunities when I should, and to be still when necessary and actually be in certain moments without chasing another one. Did I love big and grieve well? Did I give more than I took? Did I learn from the places I failed? These are the kinds of questions I ask myself at the end of a year when I’m wanting to know, “Did I do that OK?”

This year, though, y’all. It was a whirlwind. We planted a church and ran like crazy to try to keep up with all the ways God has been growing it. We tried our best to learn how to be winter mountain people when all we’ve ever known is the South (come, Jesus). We moved across the country and then moved again, just across town.

We wrestled through messy things like how to respond as the Church in the midst of a global refugee crisis, a desperate need for racial reconciliation in our nation, and a really confusing, hate-filled election season.

We flew to the other side of the world and looked in the eyes of Syrian friends who had lost everything, and we sat with them and allowed our hearts to break with theirs, and we told them they hadn’t been forgotten. I still can’t imagine the ache of longing for home and family and wondering if you’ll ever see it — or them — again.

I made dear new friends this year, the kind you know from very early on will be forever friendships. I welcomed another niece into the world and grieved all over again that the cost of my “yes” to Jesus is knowing I’ll watch them grow up from afar. I walked through the highest highs and lowest lows of surprise pregnancy followed by miscarriage, and I stepped right back into brave, terrifying hope as we continued down the road of adoption through it all.

And in looking back at all of this, here’s what I think I’ve realized: twenty-five was a year of being shaken to my core. Twenty-six was a year of healing, and realizing I don’t really care what’s mine on this side of Heaven, because everything I long for already resides in eternity. Which maybe sets me up really well for twenty-seven… Empty handed and totally free, in the best kind of way.

I want to learn how to celebrate again this year. We have been through some heavy things this year. Not just personally, but in our community, in our nation, and in the nations of the world. Yet somehow in the Kingdom of Heaven there is this redemptive quality of allowing every place of ache and longing and loss to be primed and prepared for redemption.

I feel primed and prepared for redemption.

We’re getting emails all the time right now about birth moms and babies out there, just waiting for someone to choose us. That is the most vulnerable and exposing thing I have ever done. And somehow, something in me can’t wait to throw a party.

I think maybe something happens in us when we’ve seen enough of the darkness, where we just believe all the more that the light has to be coming. Not in a rite-of-passage, I’ve paid my dues in suffering kind of way. That’s not who God is. I just think maybe I left my life on the altar long enough to see the smoke clear, and I’m realizing hope didn’t burn away.

I love that about hope. About Jesus.

I want to live inside of the reality of a resurrected, walked-through-the-fire-but-not-burned life this year. Regardless of who’s sitting in the oval office, or when I hold a baby in my arms with the last name Gilmore, or how many more global tragedies I live through. Resurrected people are the kind of people who change the world in such a way that those other things look different one day.

So, here’s to learning to celebrate again. I’m just kind of ready to feel alive.

Cheers.

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