I love light bulbs, the “aha” moments when all of a sudden two truths align and things make sense. I’ve been pondering a big one that feels life changing, or at least brain changing.
But first, a little background. Sanctification is becoming what you have already been declared to be. (Through Jesus, and only Jesus, you are justified or declared righteous.) You could call it spiritual growth or growing in Christlikeness. It’s a life long process. The Holy Spirit works in the heart of a believer, and the believer responds.
Here’s the flip of the switch.
What if sanctification isn’t just heart change but also literal brain change? What if “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” is in part re-wiring neural pathways?
What? That’s crazy!
Ok, I see you scratching your head. Don’t write me off just yet.
Have you ever heard the phrase “Neurons that fire together wire together?”
I have in several contexts, but I confess I haven’t really gotten it.
During my brief CrossFit days (I wish I still did it) I heard it in context of weight lifting; the more repetitions you do, the more automatic a movement becomes.
I’ve also heard about firing and wiring from occupational therapists as they provide deep pressure on arms and legs, from head to toe, and across the body. By activating those neurons together, they are teaching a child to regulate his nervous system so he can calm and focus.
Recently I heard it in a “Discipline that Connects” course (from Connected Families) David and I are taking. And this time all the bells and whistles went off in my brain.
Messages sent to the brain create neural pathways, and repeated messages fire faster and travel more easily. The more we use a neural pathway, the more it becomes a super highway.
Therefore, the more I am “large and loud” or angry and frustrated with my children, those responses are more easily triggered.
If I want to change the pattern, I need to change the pattern. My brain needs new messages. And it needs the repeated messages of interacting calmly and connecting with hearts before discipline.
My heart exploded with understanding and praise to God for a few reasons! Over the last four years I’ve been on a mission to seek God’s heart regarding shepherding our children. I have ready many books and studied Scripture as David and I have built our overall philosophy.
I have also been “putting in the work” to understand and process my own childhood trauma.
All of this creates and reinforces neural pathways.
As I have learned strategies to remain calm in high pressure parenting situations, I am literally re-wiring my brain. And the more “reps” I do across different circumstances, the more I’m becoming who I want to be.
When I kneel down and talk to my children instead of shout at them, neurons are doing some important highway construction— in my brain and in theirs.
I am encouraged that something physical is happening. Maybe if someone measured brain activity there would be a difference.
There is growth even if it feels SO slow sometimes. There is growth even if it feels like construction is at a stand still or an excavator dug a hole across the path.
I know my understanding of brain science is simplistic, but maybe, just maybe I’m also dismantling some neural pathways related to my own abuse and neglect.
But there’s better news! For a Christian, it’s even bigger.
If the strategies I am learning are rooted and grounded in the gospel, this is not mere behavior modification.
As I repeatedly remind myself of the truths of the gospel related to parenting (or any other struggle), those truths send neurons firing across my brain. The resplendent reality of the gospel physically changes my brain. What I actually believe about God, myself, and others physically starts to change.
Over many years a highway (among others) called “Identity” has formed. Construction on it will probably never end—an I-90 in my brain—but it’s getting bigger and better.
Perhaps brain change and heart change are connected.
Only God changes the heart, but as thinking changes so does the heart. What a complex mystery. Sanctification is God’s work. But I respond by recalling truth.
When I tell my small people…
“You are made in God’s image. Jesus loves you and died for you. He came to save sinners like you and me.”
Or “Mommy needs Jesus also. Let’s stop and ask God for help.”
Or “I know you are having a hard time. But I love you.”
Or “You are called and capable. You are responsible for your actions.”
Or “God created you. He can use your big heart, persistence, and determination for his glory.”
Or “I’m on your team. We can figure this out together.”
…perhaps those repeated messages, will one day lead to heart change. Perhaps they will internalize the truths firing across the super highways in their brains.
That’s really good news.
Maybe all of this is a little too nerdy. But imagining neurons racing across my brain, is immensely encouraging. Some things are rewiring, some past highways demolished. God is a work in me. And I will keep actively repeating messages of truth.
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”
Recently a friend wrote that about her own shifting redemptive story. It struck me that most of the dearest people in my daily life don’t know my grief. It’s been nine years since the grace of open hands, “He’s yours, Lord.” Nine years since grace even in a guttural scream “Help me God not to hate you for this!”
I’m a different person. Friends and family know the restored Ami, I think, the one who bears radiant scars but not the crushed Ami.
They know the fruit of Jesus’ healing. David’s wife. Mom of Hudson, Charlotte, and Henry. Driving a mini van, doing all the mom things. Navigating the ups and downs of life’s current season. I’m as reflective and introspective; the themes are just differently shaped.
But they only know of Jon and have only heard the stories.
It’s been about five years since I’ve lived near the ones who were there in chasm with me. (Wouldn’t it be lovely if all the people I hold dear lived in the same place?) And I’ve been married to David twice as long as I was married to Jon.
What a drastically different life!
There’s astonishing joy as the valley of death recedes further and further in the distance. But there’s still so much of me that wants the whole story known.
Jon, his death, widowhood– they are still a large part of who folks see today. I want people to see all God has done.
It’s not brave to talk about Jon and all the aftermath of his death. It never has been. It’s just how God created the inner wirings of my brain. Verbal processor, consummate oversharer. I like being known.
I’ve long adopted a “rip the bandaid off” strategy when I talk to new friends about Jon. I quickly and awkwardly bring up his death as part of a bigger context. And then I make them laugh, moving on to something else.
Maybe it helps people absorb the shock a little. And I hope it portrays, “I’m not afraid to talk about this, but I get that you can handle only so much from someone you barely know.”
The ache of grief is rare these days, though occasionally it takes me by surprise. Even the events of the emergency room are dulled. Random things cause twinges of sorrow though.
It’s also been awhile since I grieved the children Jon and I never had. Now, I wish he knew my sweet babies and could laugh with my dearest Dave.
I think of Jon and smile. I see him scouting a long line on Black Friday, asking everyone, “Are you going to buy a crockpot? That’s what we’re getting.”
I see him doing exaggerated stretches, bouncing with excitement. And I break into a wide grin as I picture him power walking (you know, like the mall walkers with their hips and arms going) as fast he can to the back. Not another shopper in sight, he swoops down, grabs the box lifting it high. “I got the first one!”
No one else wanted a crockpot.
Last night I rocked my youngest, thinking of all that’s past. Again I praised God. Again I thanked him for meeting me in valley, for keeping me when I didn’t want to be kept. Again I thanked him for teaching me Christ in joy and in sorrow, in the power of his resurrection and in the fellowship of his suffering.
Hudson has had a lot of questions about death and Heaven recently.
“Mommy will I get to meet your first husband Jon one day?”
“Yeah buddy, if you know Jesus you will.”
“I know Jesus.”
Jon had that child-like confidence also. Friends and family may not know him, but he’d probably say, “I want you to know Jesus, anyway.”
In the first days, months, and even years, grief demanded to be felt. At first all consuming, then later coming in waves, it was a typhoon I could not circumvent. Sometimes it was best to let the waves crash me against the rocks. I needed to feel every ounce of sorrow, every iota of pain that was even physical at times. No, of course, I did not want to be in the valley of death, and yes there were so many months I didn’t think I’d make it out alive.
But somehow even in the crushing, tsunami days I knew that if I was going to see redemption, if I was going to see God do something with the ashes of a broken life, I had to process the weight of grief. I couldn’t push it aside or bury it in a box. The only way through the storm, through the suffering, was to embrace it. I didn’t always grieve well, but to feel, and feel, and feel again was a response empowered only by grace.
There were so many more layers than I ever knew there would be, more knots to untangle, more tears to shed, more depths, more cyclical emotions. It took me longer to be ok then some people thought it should.
But there was also always more grace.
So here I am. I was a shipwreck, battered and sinking. I was a crumpled heap lying on the bottom of a cavern floor, limbs broken and splayed.
But God. But God who is rich in mercy wasted not an ounce of sorrow, but instead taught me himself in startlingly radiant ways. I learned a taste of what it was for Jesus to suffer—Christians like Philippians 3:10 “That I may know him in the power of his resurrection,” but we’d really prefer that the second half of the verse not exist, thank you very much. “And may share in his sufferings becoming like him in his death.”
But I do not desire a fake Jesus, the one who only comes in riding on a white horse. So, if I want to know the real Jesus, then I must know all of him.
Some say time is the great healer, but it’s not time, it’s Jesus. Sure, time has a way of blurring what once was crystal clear. But only Jesus truly heals.
Grief does not demand much attention these days. (I have two toddlers who do that just fine instead.)
But there ripples every now and then. This week a picture of some throw pillows sparked a good cry. And I feel sad that Jon never knew my wonderful David, or met my beautiful children. I know it’s a weird, thoroughly illogical response because if Jon was still here these three would not be.
I miss him still and always will. I love him still and always will.
But as Spurgeon said “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”
It is true that joy comes after sorrow, light after darkness, and calm after the storm.
Today grief feels a little more palpable than it has the last couple years. I’m not completely sure why, but perhaps it is because the more years that pass, the more life with Jon feels like a lifetime ago.
Perhaps it is also related to being home by myself with two little people who have strong needs. (You know I delight in them, but you also know that days with a toddler and an infant can be tricky. I’m not always as patient as I want to be etc.)
Perhaps it is also because sometimes life is one hard thing after the other, and maybe I’m slogging through this season some days. I guess I’m reminded that the world is broken. It’s not the way it’s meant to be. And it makes my heart sad.
But today I’m also acutely aware of Christ’s body broken for us, so that all that’s wrong will be made right. After Jon died, it was awhile before I started serving in any type of ministry, but one of the first ways I served again was by making communion bread. I loved that our church used handmade bread. It was something simple I could do for others even when I was still struggling. The weeks I was assigned to bake became sweet times of worship and prayer.
Tomorrow we get to celebrate communion with our new little church replant for the first time. Hooray! So my little helper Hudson (don’t worry, I washed his hands thoroughly ) and I baked bread. How beautiful to get to share Jesus with him as we worked. He doesn’t understand yet, but I pray one day he will. And as we mixed and kneaded, I turned my heart to prayer.
The bread is a symbol of Jesus’ body that was broken. Christians take the bread and the cup as a reminder of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
“The body of Christ broken for you.
The blood of Christ poured out for you.”
His body was broken and his blood shed, so death and sin would be defeated.
So while I miss Jon today, I’m also surrounded by some glimpses of renewal and reversal. Two babies to snuggle. My steadfast, kind, loyal, fantastic David.
We weren’t meant to experience death, and praise God, one day it will be eradicated forever. And all that’s hard will slip away. For the believer in Jesus, no more just slogging through. Only joy. Only radiant happiness.
At six years since his death, the life I had with Jon is an ebbing memory. This anniversary is markedly different than the rest; death feels like different lifetime ago. It may have much to do with hands full with a cute chunker named Hudson. At six years some memories remain vivid, but many of the mundane, insignificant days are gone. I can still watch our wedding video and hear his voice on the 30 second voicemail I have memorized. I can read his emails and listen to his sermons. But these are memories still. The nuances of our days have faded. I used to be fearful of the day when my days with Jon became less sharp, less clear in my mind. But they’ve arrived. And it’s ok.
Of course I miss Jon. Sometimes sorrow is still there. But I live in the beautiful now; I’ve been given so much joy. This is the first anniversary of his death where I have not had a strong need to process what I feel about it.
Suffering was a gift I never wanted. But I’m thankful for it—
“God has walked me through the valley of the shadow and shown me what true beauty really is. He showed me what love really looks like, and he built a depth of beauty in my story that a life without suffering would never have known.” – Kara Tippetts, The Hardest Peace
This year with our vivacious little buddy, I’m acutely aware of God’s sovereignty. I’ve said it before; if Jon had not died, I wouldn’t have David, and I wouldn’t have Hudson. And I cannot imagine life with out these two. They’re delightful. And they’re supposed to be part of the story.
Before Hudson’s birth I worried that I would have mixed emotions and sorrow because I never had a child with Jon. On that day there was sheer joy. But I’ll not lie and say that there haven’t been moments since then when I’ve missed the curly, dark headed, blue eyed copy of Jon that never existed.
Yet the imaginary baby isn’t the one I needed. My little boy with fine, straight, sandy hair was the one God had planned all along. Hudson is the sanctification I didn’t know I needed. Boy is he sanctifying! And I’m so thankful. Keep transforming my heart, Lord Jesus.
I’ll admit though, Hudson’s gorgeous blue eyes are a cherry on top.
Days with Jon may be fading, but there are fresh joys and new mercies every day. He has left an indelible imprint on my life in many ways. I will always cherish him. Jon is in part why my marriage to David is rich, deep, and strong. He taught me to discuss without shouting or slamming doors. And the work God did in my heart flows over into life with David. I think were I still as combative as I was in the early days with Jon, I might try and run right over my strong but gentle giant, David.
God’s ways are good.
I’ve been reading Psalm 18 recently, and it’s one of those stop you in your tracks, slow down and marvel at our incredible God kind of Psalms. I can’t read it without a few tears.
“The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” Psalm 18:4-6
“He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the LORD was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me.” Psalm 18:16-19
In this Psalm I see a penetrating metaphor of deep grief. I see myself when death was fresh. I was there encompassed by the cords of death, some days wondering if I’d make it out alive. But God always heard my cry. He drew me out of the waters of deep sorrow, tended my wounds, and healed them by the power of the gospel and his own dear presence. He has restored, redeemed, and renewed.
But let me never forget that this Psalm is actually about Jesus. And without redemption of my soul, all other redemption is futile. Ultimate deliverance and rescue were accomplished through his death and resurrection. I’m enjoying so many blessings right now, but Jesus is the abundant place. He would still be the “broad place” even if there weren’t any other blessings. Grief was not my real enemy. Sin and death- these are the enemies too mighty for me. And Christ already and forever defeated them.
I’m thankful for the years I had with Jon. His passion for Jesus was magnetic. It was a spark that spread to everyone around him, and I hope it always burns bright in me.
It’s hard to believe Hudson is already seven months old. Today! Today is his seven monthiversary. Let’s just say, life with a baby is wonderful, radically new, sometimes crazy hard, and thoroughly life altering. I adore my new role, but it is not without challenges. I’m learning much, and God is refining me in new ways. There’s a whole lot of sanctification going on over here.
I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like (I hope to rectify that soon), but today I have a piece featured at Risen Motherhood. Hooray!
You can find the article, At All Costs, here. Hope it encourages.
Last night I tossed and turned, waking up bleary eyed and running on fumes. Pregnancy has a whole lot to do with it, for sure. Sleep has gotten weird. But that wasn’t the main thing really. I couldn’t turn my mind off. The tired hamster in my brain ran in circles all night. Today is five years since Jon died.
Five years rings with the sound of a definite milestone. For whatever reason our brains are wired to view the multiples of 5s and 10s as more significant than others. These are the years folks throw parties or take vacations to celebrate. I don’t know, it’s just the way we think.
So, I was feeling a little stressed about today. Life has been busy preparing for the baby. Birth class, the great purge of miscellaneous junk, wrapping up work, etc. etc. There hasn’t been much time for the quiet reflection I always crave.
I was stressed about what I was thinking and feeling because I didn’t know what I was thinking or feeling about today. And if you know me at all, you get that it’s just not how I function. I think things through with a mortar and pestle, till they are a finely ground powder. It’s a milestone year. I should have this figured out. But I haven’t had time to journal and nail down the themes.
So here we are this morning, and I’m rambling away. Five years is what I say every year, both an instant and an eternity.
The day before he died I was driving to work, very early before the sun rose. Not my favorite thing at all. But as I drove east a radiant sunrise burst across the horizon of empty fields and endless sky. I jotted down a thought later that day, “Reminded by a gorgeous sunrise that light comes after dark. Spring comes after Winter. What mercy and grace the Father gives!”
How much more significant are those words now. Looking back, I can see ways God prepared me for Jon’s death though I had no idea at the time.
What mercy and grace the Father gives. These are never ending themes that only grow bolder with each anniversary.
There’s been a lot of life since Jon died, some of it insanely hard, some of it marked by piles of kleenexes, some of it full of belly laughs, some of it overflowing with redemption. And it has all been saturated with grace and mercy.
My little hamster can lie down and take a rest. Grace and mercy, some of the most beautiful words on earth, are sufficient to describe what I think about this milestone.
My God does all things well. His glory he will not share with another. And justice must be satisfied. Enter Jesus. “He bore the wrath reserved for me, now all I know is grace.”
All I know is grace.
I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still.
But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace.
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life
Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me
Oh Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You”
He was an irresistible week-old newborn, and it was his first Sunday at church. When his mom held him to her shoulder he bore the trademark “I’m just gonna mold completely to your body” newborn snuggle. Talk about baby fever right there!
And then I thought, “That is going to come out of me? That baby is huge!”
Now, it must be said that this little guy is a perfectly average, healthy baby. He wasn’t a 16 pounder.
Though you’ve likely read between the lines, (and noticed the picture) I should probably bring some of you up to speed. I suppose you can tell that I haven’t written in awhile. I guess there is less need for deep processing in the happy, hustling and bustling seasons. Well, I do write all the time these days, but technical reports for work don’t really seem to count.
Anyway, for those who don’t know me in real life or at least on Facebook, I am 5 1/2 months pregnant with our first child! Hooray!
And he’s a boy! We are so delighted to be having a son. He’s a gift long prayed for. The feeling of little kicks from the inside, hearing his heartbeat, seeing him move on ultrasound; these are among the best things I’ve ever experienced. We already know his name, but I’ll save that story for another day.
But I digress. I met a sweet little newborn at church. He was adorable; thoughts of awe and terror simultaneously flitted across my mind.
“Wow God you are amazing!”
“But someone that big is going to come out of me?”
Being pregnant has produced its own set of fears. Fears about labor and delivery. Fears about parenting. Fear that something would happen to our baby—There I’ve said it out loud. It’s uncharted territory, a completely new avenue in which I am learning trust.
I’ve wanted to be a mom for as long as I can remember. It’s one of those desires that had to be stripped away for me to see what it had become. An idol. It was a dream I had begun to worship, something I thought I had to have to be happy. It was a good desire I had let turn into an ultimate desire.
You may remember that my first husband and I tried to get pregnant for a year and half before he died. God did a lot in my heart over that year and half. But the battle was real and intense. So often I prayed for a child. So often I tried to hold my hands open to the Lord.
And when Jon died, all the hopes and dreams of being a mom shattered also. I remember when I started my period about a week after he died: I crumpled on my bathroom floor and sobbed.
So here I am, turning 35 tomorrow and pregnant! They say I’m of “advanced maternal age.” That makes me smile.
And I am amazed at God’s goodness and grace. In the years of widowhood He taught me much about living with open hands. He was good when my hands were empty. And He is good now.
The day I found out I was pregnant, I again knelt on the floor, tears streaming. Y’all know I have a strong relationship with crying.
“Lord, even from the very beginning this baby is yours. I hold my hands open to you. Do what you want with this little life. I pray you would give us grace to point this baby to Jesus. ”
But sometimes open hands are hard.
We’re five and a half months down this path, and already we’re trying to make decisions for the good of our son.
Am I eating the right foods? Taking the right vitamins? Drinking enough water?
Do I go get a Tetanus shot because I cut my toe on a screw?
The flu. Severe dehydration. “I think we better go to the hospital.”
In all this I’m starting to understand that trusting God with our son is life long. We can try to make the best, most informed decisions but ultimately God is sovereign.
He is weaving this little one together in his mother’s womb. Our son is fearfully, and wonderfully made. How much richer are those words now! God will do what brings himself honor and glory.
We’re going to make mistakes. Sometimes we’re going to have no clue what we’re doing. Maybe a lot of times. I’ll probably freak out. Meltdowns will happen—both from me and the baby.
Sometimes we’ll even sin against him. What?! I’m not going to be a perfect parent?
I see your looks of incredulity, but yes friends it’s true.
Therefore, as I learned to preach the gospel to myself in marriage, widowhood, and marriage again, so must I learn it now.
I’m well aware that my highly sensitive heart and strong need for introspection can lead an internal dialogue of fear. We all have our sin tendencies. So I have to change the dialogue.
God is the perfect parent. Therefore I don’t have to be.
If God did not spare His own Son, will he spare any omnipotent effort to do good to me? (or to my son?)
The cross and resurrection prove that the Lord is trustworthy. He always does what he says he will. Because I have been made alive, new, redeemed I can trust God.
My Father has promised to sanctify me. He is committed to transforming into the image of his Son. Therefore, he will give grace to admit when I am wrong. Grace to say, “Mommy is sorry. Please forgive me.”
God loves our baby far more than we do.
It still feels surreal sometimes. In a few short months we’ll be responsible to keep a tiny human alive, to meet his needs, to instruct him, to protect, to shepherd him. We pray many things for our baby, but most of all we pray he would know Jesus. Because who’s the real Shepherd? Who’s the real Provider and Protector? It certainly isn’t me.
That I think, is the sum of what God has called us to do—point him to the marvelous grace found in Christ alone. We are channels, channels only to the one who is the answer to all fears, to the one who fully satisfies.