Infertility Awareness Week

I’ve been silent here on my blog for awhile. I’m going to blame most of it on our transition to Fayetteville and to new jobs. It hasn’t been crazy or stressful, but life has felt fairly full, and I don’t think I have done a good job of creating space to reflect and process.

It’s Infertility Awareness Week, and in the past I would have been jumping at the chance to write some piece related to our (ongoing) journey through infertility. In the past three years, it’s been a theme throughout my writing, whether in specifics or as the lens through which I am learning other things like joy in waiting and the love displayed in disappointment.

And yet, this week, I have felt unsure and unworthy to say anything.

To be honest, we are in a very healthy, happy place. We are really enjoying this season of life: living in a one bedroom apartment (while most of our belongings are in a storage unit) – downtown (which means we can walk to restaurants, coffee shops, and the farmer’s market, not to mention being able to walk to campus for my job each day) – making new friends and reuniting with old ones.

I have found myself thankful for infertility over the past few months, not necessarily for any super spiritual reason, but simply because of my ability to invest in my job and the chance for us to downsize and live downtown for a bit. We are having fun right now!

So since I am not currently experiencing grief over our inability to conceive thus far, I feel a little disqualified from bringing attention to our journey. I don’t want it to define us, and I don’t want it to be the only need through which I experience a dependency on God.

But, I will say, while it lies dormant in the back of my mind, it’s still there. There are still moments of envy when I see other moms with newborns in their slings or wraps. There are twinges of sadness with pregnancy announcements. There are questions of what our future will be like and if there is anything we should be doing right now.

But they are not all-consuming, as they have been during other times throughout the past three years.

I want to bring attention to Infertility Awareness Week. I want to join arms with my sisters in recognizing the validity of grief and pain, whether or not it’s the loss of something tangible. I want to be a resource, an encouragement, a friend to others who are in similar places or are facing similar medical concerns. I still keep a list of women I am praying for, and that list is close to me this week and as we approach Mother’s Day. I want to encourage other women that, even if it gets easier to accept, that doesn’t invalidate moments of pain, and it doesn’t mean that the desire no longer exists. I am thankful that it has gotten easier for us, and I see that as a direct result of the prayers people have prayed for us.

And I want to express gratitude for these prayers that I know we have been covered in, praising the God who has grown contentment deep inside me, even without growing a baby in my womb.

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though a desert should surround me

It’s been three years since we made the decision to “just see what happened” in terms of starting a family. Many other things have also happened in our life during those three years–job promotions, house purchases, career changes, and a move, to name a few–but these three years have been most heavily saturated by our journey through infertility, a journey perhaps more obsessive in the beginning and now a more silent (yet constant) presence as time in the wilderness lengthens.

One of the hardest parts has been that there is always something else–always another test, always another procedure, always another option to consider. Then after you do some sort of test, there’s the wait for results, then the potential second test to confirm the first test, then the attempt of trying some sort of medicine, then scheduling a third test, and on and on. And once there are a few potential answers, there are then a plethora of opinions when it comes to natural remedies or supplements or prescriptions or procedures for more next steps.

Y’all, this could go on for years, and for many people it does. I think this is one of the reasons that couples are more reluctant to talk about it. Either because there’s always the hope of more information in a couple of months or the potential for it to change with this one procedure, so they don’t want to talk about it just yet; or they have talked about it and endured this continuous testing cycle and still don’t have a conclusion so they begin to feel like a broken record among their friends. There might be something new to report, but really there’s nothing new to report, because they still aren’t pregnant, so why bring it up?

I really don’t want “infertility” to define my life, but sometimes it’s hard to get away from.

There are many other areas of waiting or grief I am sure are similar–unwanted realities that feel so monumental you don’t know how to stop defining your life by them: The single adult who wants to be married but whose last relationship was so long ago that it doesn’t seem to “count” and who doesn’t even know how to hope. The continual burden of job-searching (combined either with unemployment or unhappiness in a present job) and the feeling of being stuck but unable to control your own motion. The grief in the loss of a loved one and uncertainty of how to manage life without that person, or how to process the loss of a child you never got to hold in your arms.

Even in seemingly-less monumental pain, we can find ourselves creating an identity pattern in our lives that has larger effects on how we view the world: the loneliness in a lack of friendships, or the regret of a wrong decision that you can’t let go of, or the comparison of your skills to everyone around you.

We allow our pain and disappointments to color the lenses through which we view the world. We label ourselves as “inferior” or “to be pitied.” We see these things as an injury that holds us back or a deformity we must learn to live with, and we allow them to taint our perspective (especially related to God).

But if I were to pinpoint one of the major things that I have learned as I have walked through these past few years, it would be the ways I have learned to find joy because of my pain, a perspective of gratitude for this season even though it’s not what I would have chosen. While there have been months where I certainly was not grateful, there have also been months I have considered it a privilege to be entrusted with such circumstances as I reflect on the intimacy I have gained with the Lord and the story I have been given to relate with and encourage others as they walk through their own pain (whether infertility or otherwise).

We are molded by our circumstances but also by our experience of God in those circumstances–for better or for worse. And much of that is our choice, how we will respond to our pain. Especially whether we will cling to the Lord or bitterly reject him for allowing this in our life.

As I encounter God in the wilderness, my perspective changes, impacting the way I will walk in the future.

I recently stumbled across the delightful book Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912), and I couldn’t put it down! It’s a story about an orphan girl whose college education is funded by a mysterious benefactor, to whom she writes letters to report on her college experience. Judy has only seen his back and his distorted shadow, which gave the appearance of long skinny legs and arms, hence her nickname for this guardian. Throughout the book, Judy is wrestling with her upbringing at the orphan asylum as compared to all of the other girls in their traditional homes with loving families. It isn’t until the end of the book–the end of her four years at college­–that she comes to appreciate her own story, even with the sadness of her circumstances:

It gives me a sort of vantage point from which to stand aside and look at life. Emerging full grown, I get a perspective on the world, that other people who have been brought up in the thick of things entirely lack. I know lots of girls (Julia, for instance) who never know that they are happy. They are so accustomed to the feeling that their senses are deadened to it; but as for me—I am perfectly sure every moment of my life that I am happy. And I’m going to keep on being, no matter what unpleasant things turn up. I’m going to regard them (even toothaches) as interesting experiences, and be glad to know what they feel like. ‘Whatever sky’s above me, I’ve a heart for any fate.’

I feel a lot like Judy Abbott. It’s taken me time to appreciate the vantage point I have been given. I may not be “perfectly sure” that I can always be happy, but I do feel confident I have the understanding that contentment–and the happiness we experience as a result–is not based on my circumstances or my possessions. Rather, like Paul says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content… I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). My broken, selfish nature may at times keep me from finding strength in Christ, instead attempting to control or perform or succeed to gain what I want. But when I again (and again) lay my own plans down in surrender, I accept his will and find contentment in his purposes.

Not that any of this negates the reality of pain. Even my new friend Judy says that unpleasant things may turn up. But in the understanding of God’s love for us and thus his goodness being played out in our lives, we can face the unexpected and unwanted with a confidence that there’s something sweet to be gained. No longer must our pain define us negatively, but rather we can find the “vantage point” that it will give us going forward, confident that there is goodness below the surface.

At the end of the excerpt, Judy is quoting from Lord Byron’s poem “To Thomas Moore” when she writes, “Whatever sky’s above me, I’ve a heart for any fate.” The stanza following these two lines reads:

Though the ocean roar around me,
Yet it still shall bear me on;
Though a desert should surround me,
It hath springs that may be won.

Byron’s words remind me of what Charles Spurgeon so eloquently wrote: “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

The springs God has shown me in the desert of the last three years have held more refreshing water than any I might experience from a dependable faucet. So while the story of infertility will certainly continue to hold weight in my life, my hope is that my attitude toward my reality is shaped by the vantage point I am climbing toward as I more clearly see God’s presence in the story.

rejoicing while we wait

I didn’t know it was possible to experience such sweetness in the middle of the story, in the places without resolution or certainty. Yet the Christmas season seems to be the perfect place to wrestle with and settle into contentment in the tension.

In high school, I went on a mission trip to the Czech Republic with my youth group. I loved building relationships with friends from a different culture, and we would often talk about the ways we did things in America vs. Europe. A Czech student told me that one thing he had observed about Americans was how we always wanted happy endings. He referenced our Disney movies and talked about how the traditional fairy tales often had different endings, or at least went about in other ways to reach their conclusion.

His example was the ending of The Little Mermaid, as in the traditional story the Prince marries someone else (not Ursula in disguise–that plot twist was created by Disney) and Ariel becomes a spirit in the sky.

In college, as I was doing research for a lit analysis, I discovered that in the Grimm Brothers’ story of Cinderella, one of the stepsisters cuts off her big toe and the other cuts off part of her heel so that the slipper fits, and the trail of blood is what gives both of them away.

Neither of those examples made the Disney cut. And for good reason–children wouldn’t like it. Honestly, I wouldn’t like it. We typically want to see stories wrap up the way we expect, the way we want our own lives to settle up. There’s a happily-ever-after bow that we expect to be tied onto the end of our stories, and until that bow is there, we find ourselves feeling as if something is not right.

In one sense, this longing can remind us that the story is not over. But in another way, it can keep us from appreciating where we are at right now, as if we can’t be okay in the middle of the story if we don’t know the ending (or if the ending doesn’t look to be happy).

I notice this as people talk to us about our infertility. I am so grateful to have friends who are still praying for us to conceive and become parents. That is still the desire of our hearts. But that can sometimes feel like the only option, the thing we are waiting for in order to be happy, and before that happens, we have to be doing everything we can to get that happy ending.

When we are in a place of contentment despite this unfulfilled desire, I feel I have to defend why we aren’t continuing to take steps to try new things. Why we aren’t moving forward with procedures that can attempt to overcome the obstacles in our bodies. Why we aren’t ready to pursue adoption.

Our friends want that happy ending for us. I want that. But I am learning that it’s not as much about happy endings as it is being present in the story. As Americans–and especially as American Christians–we aren’t always good at this. It’s as if our faith adds a new dimension onto this perceived need to be happy, to be able to say “God is good!” no matter what. And he is. But in the familiarity of this, or in using it as a band-aid to hide our disappointment, we can sometimes miss the beauty of the tension found in our longing.

The traditional Christmas hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” captures this tension in a sad yet lovely way.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

This hymn is a realistic reminder that we are caught in a not-yet-fulfilled desire for Messiah’s return, just as the Jews in the Old Testament were waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah. This is what Advent is all about, a recognition of our wait and his promised coming.

And yet, in the middle of the wait, before the promise is fulfilled, the command from these lyrics is to rejoice because he is coming. There is hope in the wait, and the ability to rejoice while we the wait is prompted by a recognition of what’s lacking tied to the hope of its fulfillment.

It’s not an ignorance of what’s lacking, or even a forced decision that the lack really doesn’t matter that much so it shouldn’t keep us from rejoicing–both of which are temptations I have felt to help me cope in my own waiting seasons in life.

Instead, we acknowledge our need for Christ and rejoice as we wait for him because it has been promised that he is coming again. And I am experiencing God’s presence in the wait as I ask for even more of it. That’s what I find myself praying as I sing this hymn–“O come, God with us, and be with me as I wait for you.”

All of our lives we will live in some sort of unresolved tension. Happily ever after won’t fully come until Christ’s return. But that doesn’t mean that the rejoicing is on hold–in fact, that anticipation can make rejoicing now even sweeter.

I don’t know what your lack is right now. I don’t know what you find yourself waiting for or longing for. But I do know that all of our desires are met in Him (Psalm 10:17, Psalm 145:16, Isaiah 58:11), and in the middle of the wait, there is joy to be found because God is here and he is coming again.

“Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14)

understanding the peace that passes understanding

What does the word “peace” bring to mind when you hear it?

I picture a perfect fall day, leaves at the height of their brilliance and strewn across the walking path as I sit on a bench next to a creek, away from my phone and my to-do lists and the dog hair that always seems to pile up in the corners of my kitchen.

Maybe for you it’s a different place, a beach or a spa or a snow day.

Or maybe it’s less of a place and more of a season of life, having everything “figured out” and no problems to solve. One common association of this word (especially among mothers of young children) is a desire for “peace and quiet.”

But often, peace is not accompanied by the quiet. In fact, peace is most clearly found when everything around it is chaos and confusion and clutter.

I once read (I wish I could remember where) a description of a painting that displayed a great storm rolling in above a waterfall. You could imagine the crashing of the water and the shudder of the thunder, lightning flashing to illuminate the woods surrounding the river banks. In one corner of the painting, a small nest was tucked away among some limbs, and a bird was featured, fast asleep. The illustrator had titled the work, “Peace.”

So often, I find myself praying for peace, and what I am actually praying for is an ease in my circumstances. I am asking for God to make clear everything around that is confusing. I am asking for things to slow down, to be happier – to be, honestly, what I want them to be. I want resolution, and I typically think that peace is found within that resolution.

However, right now, I am learning to see my life as “at peace”–even though many of my struggles and prayers are yet unresolved. Over the past four or five months, I have discovered that the things that once felt painful or difficult, while they have not gone away, are no longer dominating my life. I don’t want to deny that life has more of an element of uncertainty than ever right now, because I think that’s the most beautiful part about this peace from God.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

The verses above provide two commands and a resulting promise. Don’t be anxious; instead, bring everything to God in prayer. If you do these things, you will experience this protective peace that passes understanding, which can only happen as you surrender those concerns to God.

The Message version provides a beautiful commentary on these verses:

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

God’s peace is not related to a calm in our circumstances. Peace does not occur when life slows down or eases up, but rather when things are hard and nothing about our circumstances are easy. That’s why it surpasses understanding.

Jesus spoke of this. He told his disciples that he was giving them peace but in the same breath warned them of difficulties ahead.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. –John 16:33

There’s something different about the peace that Jesus offers, something that is unlike what the world might expect.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. –John 14:27

Spurgeon wrote that in this peace, our “faith goes further than understanding, and the peace which the Christian enjoys is one which the worldling can not comprehend, and can not himself attain.” He illustrates the effects of this peace by writing:

When you have once felt it, when you can stand calm amid the bewildering cry, confident of victory, when you can sing in the midst of the storm, when you can smile when surrounded by adversity, and can trust your God, be your way never so rough, never so stormy; when you can always repose confidence in the wisdom and goodness of Jehovah, then it is you will have “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”

In my life, this peace has transformed the way I am walking through those days, as I approach them with surrender and gratitude. I am finding security as I let go of my concerns, looking not for resolution but instead for the presence of Christ. God’s goodness plays out not in prosperity but in his presence and his plans, which I trust are greater than my own.

I truly believe that the peace that God gives is most beautifully portrayed in our dark or difficult days, and in that sense, I am grateful to live in the tension of unresolved yet secure and guarded by Christ.

marriage letters: the fear of becoming bored

Dear Eric,

I went to bed early last night with a regular headache, and I woke up a little before 1 a.m. with the worst sharp headache that I have ever had. I stumbled into the kitchen to take a couple of Tylenol, and by the time I came back to bed, my head was throbbing.

You woke up and asked if everything was okay, and for the next 30-45 minutes you sat straight up in bed, stroked my hairline, and prayed over me as I tried to fall back asleep. Thankfully, the pain began to come and go, then eventually subsided to a normal headache as I fell back asleep. I don’t remember you laying back down, so I know you were awake longer than I was, praying over me and, I’m sure, trying to not worry.

It was one of the most tender moments in our almost six years of marriage, the way you cared for me and prayed for me. Did you know that, in the midst of miserable middle of the night pain, I fell in love with you a little more?

I used to worry that, if infertility lasted too long, we might get bored. Stagnant.

Not that I wouldn’t still love you, or that we wouldn’t be best friends, but that our marriage would not move forward to the next stage. That we would feel stale together. Every other marriage I observed and many of the couples we talked to described how their relationship changed when they had kids. It pushed them to learn so much more about God and themselves, and I guess I began to see that as the only way to learn those things.

In the past 6-8 months, though, I have started to experience the Lord pushing us to grow and changing us, even without the added factor of kids. Not just because we have had a lot going on in our lives, still adjusting to our move last summer and changes in seasons of work, but because I see that God is changing both of us.

If sanctification is a life-long process, I am realizing that means that we will always be changing, if we are individually walking with the Lord and allowing his Spirit to work in our lives. As we both wrestle with sin in our lives, as we continually allow our minds to be renewed and our lives to be transformed, as we take steps of faith and find ourselves in new circumstances–we will each grow. And we are growing even now as we trust God with where he has us today as well as where he will take us tomorrow.

Keeping our marriage healthy takes so much intentionality. It always has–even in the beginning, it required work on our part. But I think the reason it can almost feel harder now is it’s easier to co-exist without thinking about it, since we know each other so well. We aren’t still learning some of those everyday things that we learned our first few years married: what will unconsciously hurt the other person’s feelings, how to handle conflict, the best way to discuss finances, the need to communicate expectations. Not that we perfectly follow those now, but I typically know why what I said upset you or when to wait on bringing up a to-do list.

Yet I know that I don’t know everything about you–or, at least, I know I should never think that I do. I want to be a student of Eric Barnes. I want to see you as someone who is ever-changing and maturing, and it’s my privilege to walk alongside you and affirm you and call out the growth you may not see in yourself.

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The other night, we sat together in front of our fire pit in the backyard watching flames flicker and dance. In the quiet of the night, I prayed that God would help me to know you more deeply, to take the time to ask those intentional questions and to make space for us to engage each others’ hearts.

I’m excited for this season of our marriage as we continue to grow individually and together, no matter what changes (or lack of changes) are prompting that growth.

You’re my favorite.

Love, me.

 

I started writing marriage letters a couple of years ago to participate with a monthly blog series Amber Haines prompted others to join in with her. Writing these letters spoke affirmation into my marriage, and my prayer is that by still writing them and sharing them every so often, I will also encourage others to pursue intentionality and affirmation in their own marriages.

why I stopped asking why

I’ve stopped asking why.

I used to cling to purpose, to reasons, to analysis and determination that I would do all I was supposed to during an unexpected season that I saw as a detour I simply needed to get around. I was strategic and open to hearing from the Lord but also determined to figure out the why on my own.

But life rarely goes the way we expect it to. After a job loss we weren’t prepared for then numerous job changes for both me and Eric, after a planned move to Louisville for seminary that never happened, after support raising and the decision to end support raising and the 3.5 year job that he never wanted to last more than a year and a move to my hometown and house buying attempts that fell through and both of us struggling to find boundaries with work and another deferred seminary enrollment, not to mention 2.5 years of infertility (and continuing)–I’ve learned that there’s not always a clear why, at least not one that I should be building my life upon.

I still want the why. I would love for God to give me a tangible answer: “This is what you are supposed to do since you don’t have kids yet.” I wanted the why throughout all of the unexpected twists and turns in our journey. If I could just know what I need to learn or how I should spend my time, I could perhaps be more content with my detour, right? I could refocus my eyes from where I wanted to be to what I need to do so that I can eventually get where I want to be.

But I can also see how I am looking to a tangible purpose to be an identity or a task to conquer so that I can move forward in my life. I find myself looking for that reason instead of looking for God in the middle of the dark.

I’ve been reading W. Philip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, and through the course of the book my view of God and his care for us has been expanded by recognizing the helplessness and the stupidity of sheep. The humbling descriptions of how sheep act and the attention they require has made me realize the depth of my need for God.

As Keller comments on each part of Psalm 23 and how it relates to his past experience with sheep-herding, I was struck by his description of “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” He discusses the need for a shepherd to keep his sheep on the move, preventing their wearing out the same paths, both for the sake of the land and the sake of the sheep’s health. Keller then discusses how followers of Christ, instead of trying to make their own paths and go their own way, can move forward onto new ground with God.

Instead of finding fault with life and always asking “Why?” I am willing to accept every circumstance of life in an attitude of gratitude.

Human beings, being what they are, somehow feel entitled to question the reasons for everything that happens to them. In many instances life itself becomes a continuous criticism and dissection of one’s circumstances and acquaintances.

I’ve been pondering how that attitude of gratitude would change my daily life, how I might be able to rest in that perspective instead of the exhausting pursuit of a knowable reason for everything. While I do believe that God has a purpose for each part of our lives, a tapestry woven together to make us more like him and to bring glory to his name, I no longer think it’s my objective to discover the why for every single thing.

In fact, His Word tells us that his ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). We won’t always understand what He is doing, at least not in the moment or perhaps even in our lifetime. When Job asked God what fault he found with him (Job 31), God’s response was not to give an explanation, but to give Job a bigger view of Himself (Job 38-41). Job’s then admits, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2-3).

We are but sheep. Our job is not to be the shepherd, or even the Shepherd’s assistant, but to follow the Shepherd where He leads us, trusting His knowledge and His plotted out paths for our nourishment.

But if one really believes his affairs are in God’s hands, every event, no matter whether joyous or tragic, will be taken as part of God’s plan. To know beyond doubt that He does all for our welfare is to be led into a wide area of peace and quietness and strength for every situation. –Keller

He might choose to give us a clear purpose, calling us to something specific or creating circumstances that allow for focused growth. But even if He doesn’t, He is a good shepherd (John 10). As I find rest in who He is, I am less dependent on knowing a reason why and instead seeking to know Him. I am building my life upon Him, as He is the greatest purpose in any season I encounter.

How to Really Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice

I was in a bad mood. I knew it, and I knew why. But instead of dealing with it the way I knew I should (probably going on a walk and listening to a podcast, or journaling and praying to process my feelings), I grouchily laid on the couch, sighed, and pulled out my phone.

I knew better.

We’ve probably almost all been there–scrolling through social media feeds, feeling more discouraged and left out with each swipe, knowing that this addiction to see the next entry is harmful to our hearts yet being unable to put the device down.

And of course, the source of my pain, the thing I was trying to forget, was everywhere my fingers were tapping.

((Click to continue reading over at Upwrite Magazine))