In September I had the privilege of attending a world conference for counselors. The workshops are amazing, but I think for me the conversations about what we are learning are just as important for growth as both a person and a people helper. Brent, the pastor we were with, said that he believed acceptance played a huge part in peoples healing, I nodded in agreement and have continued to ruminate on the concept of acceptance these last couple of months. I wondered where I learned that concept and realized I had observed it both in others and in my own healing journey.
Over the years I have been a person that people have confided in. And there have been several times as someone has shared their story with me, that I found myself silently asking, "Lord, do you not see how much this person has already suffered and now they are facing this, too?" My question isn't an angry "how dare You" question, it is a plea for His compassion and love to be poured out on the suffering person speaking to me. I am going to share a couple of examples of people I have admired and learned from.
The first person was my dear friend, Millie, whom I met over forty years ago. She had already lost her parents when we met, and we quickly became family even though we initially were at different life stages--she was single and longing for a husband and I was married and popping out babies every 20 months.
After she got married, she was so excited when she got pregnant and then had a miscarriage. A couple of years later, she helped us move several states away, just as she found out she was pregnant again. When her baby was about six months old, he passed away. I went and stayed with her, and we grieved hard, and then I returned home knowing her grief would go on for some time. She got pregnant soon with twins and later in her pregnancy, she called to tell me she had lost one of the twins and was on bed rest in every effort to save the live baby. So, as she gave birth to twins, she was both celebrating the birth of a daughter and grieving hard the loss of her other daughter. She went on and had another little boy.
They came to see us when the kids were around five and three. The five-year-old, realized I had five kids and when her mom went to the bathroom, she came up to me and asked me if I knew her mama had five children, too. I told her I did and that I had met her older brother before he passed away and that he was funny, loved music like his mama, and that her parents loved all of their babies, even those in heaven. I sensed her mama in the hall listening and when she came out, she mouthed the words, "Thank you."
Because they were open with their kids about their story, we were able to have awesome eternal conversations about life and death and trusting God in the hard. Millie and I were graced with a four-hour phone conversation two days before she passed away. And one of the things she told me was, "I need you to know how much I have been blessed and how much I have enjoyed my kids. I believe that was partly because she embraced grief and reached acceptance and was free to love and experience joy even when she thought of her losses. Not going to sugar coat it...her grief was complicated and hard, but she moved through it, and it allowed her to persevere in her faith until the day she died.
The next person I am telling you about was a professor and a counselor, named Norm Wright. I took his Biola grief and trauma class, at our church a couple of times and then I had the privilege of assisting him in the class for several years. He and his first wife Joyce had two children. One was a boy who was born with severe mental handicap and health problems. Through acceptance he, could see Matthew's "little" accomplishments and enjoy him. Matthew lived several years and eventually passed away. Norm leaned into grief and learned all he could about it and before long he was a chaplain that went to places like New York after 9/11, churches or schools that had experienced mass shootings, and banks that had experienced robberies, debriefing people who had experienced trauma. He took his therapy dogs and served people well. His wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor and eventually passed away as a result. Then he lost his daughter and his son-in-law as well. He continued to show up and serve people in the face of so much loss. He went to GriefShare with us all and continued to go long after he probably needed it just so he could serve those who were suffering loss. I believe his acceptance of his story filled with losses caused him to persevere and to serve out of what he learned through his own grief. He, too, persevered in his faith until the day he died.
During the time I first met Norm, I was working with a therapist because I had not dealt with some trauma I had experienced early in life. I was afraid of strong emotions was using an eating disorder to avoid painful emotions that sometimes surfaced with memories. Several times she had me discuss a trauma and visualize the time and place as I closed my eyes. She would quietly count to a hundred so I would know I wasn't alone and if I started feeling intense emotions, I would know by the number how much longer I would sit in it. I think it was the third time that we did it, that I was committed to fulling sitting in all of the emotion and not running from it. About halfway through the exercise, I realized this memory we were processing was my story and I was okay.
As soon as we were through with the exercise, she asked me what happened at a certain number. I explained the best I could at the time, but realized later that what I had experienced was acceptance of the hard things I had experienced. I had not realized the fear of facing the real story had kept me stuck. Until then, I had not realized the fear of feeling was actually bigger than the grief and the righteous anger that was normal for what I experienced. Because I was able to experience acceptance of my story, I was able to persevere in my faith even when it was hard. Because of acceptance, I was able to experience God as a healer. Because of acceptance, I was able to write curriculum to help others navigate their trauma, work and to develop and run a ministry I had never ever imagined running.
God has been good to me, as there are many other stories I could have shared. There are many people he put in my path to teach me about trauma and its impact on us as humans and as believers. He put people in my life to model Jesus' compassion and others to speak or write out truths I needed to hear. One of the most significant things I have learned recently was penned by a speaker/counselor named Phil Monroe who said that one of the myths we face as sufferers or healers is, "Suffering is God's way of strengthening me." That myth is simply a minimization of the suffering we have experienced. It is true that God will be glorified when we seek Him in the face of suffering, and if we do the work necessary, we may even gain some strength as we process our trauma and its impact on us. But the truth is God's heart for the hurting tells us that suffering is not His master plan for growth. As Phil put it, "When suffering entered the world, God's master plan was to pursue lost people (Gen. 3:9, 21) and to care for them. Suffering is the result of evil and of living in a fallen world. And our God is not evil! HE is GOOD!
When I had the first conversation about acceptance at the conference, I sensed there was something missing that we weren't addressing. Then this week it hit me, the truth that a part of healing is acceptance was for me an incomplete thought. For me acceptance has also been the path to perseverance that has been what deepened my faith in Jesus and has given me rest in the Abba's arms.